Friday, 23 March 2012

My Balcony Garden

Well before we knew we had secured the flat (it took a good long month from us saying we wanted the place and were ready to put down the deposit to secure it to the various owner type people getting everything in order and finally taking our money *breathe*) we were well aware it came with a delightful balcony. And as such, I was well aware I would fill our little outside space with as much greenery as I could as soon as I could.

When I left my seamstressing job down south with a lovely group of ladies, they knew of my plans for a balcony garden and for my leaving gift they bought me a fantastic selection of gardening bits anf bobs, this was my starting point for my gardening. I then spent the chilly months of January and February buying up seeds (I managed to get most of mine massively discounted because they were last year's. Packets of seeds for 39p ftw.), as well as pots and other gardening bits and pieces. Then on my week long visit down south to see family and friends I bought a huge amount of soil (£10 for 3 x 60 litre bags!) and what is proving to be possibly one of the best things I have ever bought, a mini, plastic greenhouse. Similar to this one here, but under a tenner!

It is currently my pride and joy. I have planted so many different things, I'm starting to wonder if I really do have enough space for everything once it gets closer to harvesting things.

Pretty much every thing's shooting up too. All apart from the strawberries, which have finally poked their tiny little lazy plant heads up above the soil, but are seemingly reluctant to grow into anything larger and that might potentially grow me some strawberries. And the coriander, that just doesn't seem interested. It's still got time though, I've not given up on the little seeds yet.

I've got radishes, which will go into their final pots this Sunday (Sunday is gardening day), purple sprouting broccoli and peas which are also close, tonnes of carrot plants, tomatoes, spring onions, pak choi, various herbs in a small grow bag on the bottom level along with two tubs of rocket and salad leaves, and butterhead lettuce.

Gardening for me is not just the joy of growing something from a seed and (hopefully) enjoying the fruits (veges?) of my labours, but about family ties and memories. One of the most important veggies I've planted, for me, are the runner beans. I've planted three beans which are a few generations down from the same that my Grandad grew rows and rows of on his plot of land at my grandparents' house, a place which holds strong and fond memories from my childhood. The generations in between were my parents' plants. I can't remember a year where we didn't have a glut of runner beans in the summer. And I love them, especially the first crop of the year, young and tender beans, absolutely delicious just on their own. Maybe a little gravy. Nom.

I've gone for a few flowers as well, poached eggs plants and nasturtiums. Both because they remind me of my parents' house. The drive out next to the front garden was, until recently, a thing of dread for anyone trying to navigate it (or just me and delivery men in vans). There was about a foot wide ditch between the edge of the drive and the lawn and it was inevitable I would end up in it in my car, more often than not (back wheels right in there, on a front wheel drive car D: ). During the winter this was a horrible boggy ditch of doom, which I got properly stuck in more than once (Pa having to come out of the house to angrily rescue me). But in the warmer months it became a beautiful patch of vibrant poached egg plants.

The gardeny part of the front garden was always covered in nasturtium plants, I used to play with the cabbage white caterpillars that would smother the patch for a month or so of the year, then once the caterpillars had all found somewhere cosy to chrysalis-up (or had been eaten by something), the plants would go mad and threaten to take over the path as well as the garden. And the smell, it was so strong, especially in caterpillar season.  Recently, however, my parents got the lawn (and the dreaded ditch) paved over, turning the area which was garden into lawn. Some of the nasturtium plants were put into pots and now live in the back garden, and I brought some seeds from the plants up to York with me, which are now growing into my very own nasturtium plants.

And sunflowers. There are no reasons whatsoever for me wanting to grow sunflowers other than they grow tall and awesome. And potentially delicious if I harvest their seeds (that sounds a bit sinister, but yeah.).

Other than my seedlings I've got my violas, which are just about surviving the greenflies that have appeared from nowhere.


I bought these not long after we moved in, in November I think it was. These have been flowering solidly since then! Dedicated little lovelies. They smell fantastic too.

 Honourable mentions go to my avocado plant, which has started to sprout again, to my relief, after I chopped all of it's leaves off!
 My lemon plant, which I grew from a seed I found sprouting inside of a lemon at my last pub job, over a year ago now. That's got sprouts now after I chopped the top off. (I think my harsh pruning habits must come from my Pa.)
And last but not least, my carrot plant. Which you would be correct in thinking it is just a top of a carrot. Le Boof  hit the nail on the head by saying gardening taps into my nurturing nature. I saw one of the carrots starting to sprout in the fridge, which of course meant I had to chop the growing bit off and stick it in some soil! There will be millions of carrot in the flat when I'm finished, I swear.

So there we go. There were going to be several other things mentioned in this post, but I've probably waffled on enough for now. Back to cake and yarn next time!

Two songs by one of my favourite bands ever:
The song that first got me interested in them, Wild Beasts - Assembly
One of the songs from their latest album, Wild Beasts - Bed of Nails

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Mother's Day 2012


Due to the big ol' move, this year was the first year I was away from my Ma for Mother's day, *sad face*. So at the beginning of the week I set out to make a wonderful gift package as a substitute for my presence. I started with the traditional list of things: chocolate, flowers, gift and card, then had a good think about how to achieve these goals with my powers of arts, crafts and baking. (And yes you would be correct in thinking I really should get round to making myself a cape some time soon.)

For the flower part of the gift (and also the card part) I found a jolly good gerbera knitting pattern (ma's favourite flowers being gerberas), which knit up very nicely. Although having chosen yellow for the petals I had to put up with lots of people asking why I was knitting a string of tiny bananas. A small sacrifice however. I made myself a card from two A4 pieces of nice lilac card stock and then made a paper hinge (folding a long thin piece of paper in half length ways and sticking the two outer faces on one edge of the bits of card). I then poked holes close to the sides of the stem and tied it to the card with the same colour wool and cut out a leaf shape from green card and stamped it with my letter stamps and acrylic block (such useful bits of card making gear).

So once Ma's done with looking at it as a card she can remove the flower on it's own and put it somewhere as a lasting memory of what a good daughter I am (really!) :D

The gift part of the, er, gift, was two little knitted piggies. I made three smaller ones for Ma for Christmas, she liked them so much I decided to add to the family that now lives on the printer in my parents' house. It's a fairly straightforward pattern, but as it's done on DPNs and with double knitting wool it can be a little fiddly. A good one for practising bobbles though.

And finally in the Mother's Day Gift Pack 2012 (now it's official title), the pièce de résistance, was a small batch of these chocolate truffle cookies. Unfortunately, not all of them could fit in the box I had in mind to send off, so some were left over. And.... tasted. Repeatedly. Omnomnom! They are gorgeous. I think maybe a recipe best saved for a special occasion, they're terribly more-ish and I can't imagine they rate highly on the health meter, even for cakes and cookies. They come out of the oven crisp on the outside and soft, ever so slightly chewy and melty in the middle.

So there we are. I packaged these bits up in a box and packaging le Boof and I had previously been sent things in from our parents (yay, recycling!) and pottered off to the post office.

My brother managed to hide it away until Sunday and dadah! it's like I was there in person. Well nearly, it's hard to send wittiness and charm through the post. *ahem*

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Story of the Citrus and Chilli Cosmic Cake and My Very First Cake Competition

Ok, first off, sorry for the humongous gap in time between now and my last post. Turns out making money to pay all the bills people keep sending us takes up a lot of one's life. Anyways.

So myself and le Boof are members of the university's gaming society, FragSoc. They host three LANs (if you don't know what a LAN is, please read this) a term, which is great fun. Sixty to ninety people sat in a massive room for an entire weekend playing games, eating junk food and consuming an unhealthy amount of caffeine. When I first joined I had heard rumours of baking competitions and the weekend just gone they finally held one. YUS. First ever baking competition, dead excited.

So planning began. A long, late-night discussion with BBF (best baking friend - find her here amongst other places) followed, on what could best fulfil the four criteria the cakes were to be judged on: taste, appearance, ingenuity and "appropriate use of caffeine". I wanted something interesting, something that no one else would think of. Chilli cake was a route I was intrigued by, and chocolate and chilli was the obvious recipe to go for, but it had already been done in previous competitions. Of course the next step is lemon and chilli (??) I have no idea where that came from but it stuck. As far as getting caffeine into the cake was concerned a lot of previous entries had, in my eyes, cheated, and just ground up pro plus tablets and popped them in the cake batter. I did not wish to cheat. So the idea of incorporating energy drink into the cake somehow was added to the list of insanity.

Eventually I came to my final decision. I would make a citrus chilli cake with an orange energy drink and chilli drizzle and the same energy drink in an orange buttercream icing. And it would be magnificent.

After half a day of playing around with a lemon drizzle cake recipe and and quite a lot of crushed chilli flakes, I found a good balance, and to my intense relief, it actually tasted really nice! Next was the drizzle. I boiled down some of the energy drink (Relentless Inferno for those who know what it is &/or are interested), and again chucked in a load of crushed chilli. That... well, that was best not consumed on its own to be frank. But on the cake, it definitely added (more) kick!

Fairly innocuous lemon drizzle mix
Slightly less innocuous chilli flakes

Batches ready for varying amounts of chilli
Chilli batter and the control mix (sans chilli)

Then came the day before the LAN party, and the competition. Three batches (and not small batches either) of cake mix, two cans of energy drink, a lot of naked lemons and oranges, a hell of a lot of chilli flakes, and a fair bit of arts and crafts later I had my cake finished.

Two of the three cakes used
The Relentless and chilli drizzle being reduced

It was. Magnificent.

The Final Cake!

The space invader design was le Boof's idea. It's used in the gaming society's logo and of course is iconic within computer gaming, so was a no brainer once it'd been suggested. The night before I made the cake I made a bespoke cardboard base for it and drew out the logo in 1 1/2 inch squares, then covered it in a couple of layers of cling film. Once the cakes were made I cut them up into the same size squares and put them together in the space invader pattern, like giant edible pixels! To top if off I went crazy with the space dust edible glitter, although you can't really see it in the pictures. *sad face*

Just for funsies I also popped the left over Relentless and chilli drizzle in an empty (and clean) vanilla essence bottle and brought that along, then left it casually by the side of the cake. During the judging this got passed round the more laddish of the LAN attendees who were shotting it from the tiny lid and  then shaking their heads and gasping!

I came third in the competition in the end, it was incredibly nerve racking! It was judged by the chair of the society, a guy who had come along to represent the society's new sponsor and another member of the society (society society). I was beaten by an admitted really impressive Nyan cat cake which was beautifully decorated and was a seven layer rainbow cake inside. I doff my hat to them, it tasted good and looked incredible, but despite that they only came second. I can't say I would have awarded first prize to the cake it did go to, but I'm not grumbling. Here's what I won! Yay! Prizes for baking!


So there we go. It was great fun doing it, although I can't now even think about eating lemon drizzle cake, I'm sick of the sight of it. I enjoyed my first dabble into experimenting with baking. I think I'd do the basic cake again, not all the energy drink business, that was mainly to get in some caffeine. I'll pop the recipe at the end of the post, it's definitely worth trying out if you like a little bit of spice in your food (prob not for the faint hearted though).

This also means I am now no longer just one of the girls at the LAN (max 4-6 girls to min 50 odd boys usually), I am the girl that made the crazy but surprisingly tasty citrus and chilli cake. (oh, and the girl that's good at TF2 - my team totally won the tournament.)


Citrus and Chilli Cake

320g Caster sugar
3 eggs
Zest of 2 lemons and 1 orange
350g plain flour
1tsp salt
250ml milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
250g butter
4 1/2 tsp crushed chilli

+Pre heat oven to 180°c
+Cream butter and sugar together
+Stir in eggs
+Add zest, vanilla extract and crushed chilli
+Sieve in flour, baking powder and salt
+Stir milk in, a bit at a time until you've got a nice batter mix
+Pour batter into cake tin
+Bake for roughly 30mins, dependent on what shaped tin you're baking in
(Original recipe this is based on was for a lemon drizzle loaf, that said to bake for 1hr 15min, although I put mine in a brownie tin, which took considerably less baking time)